Influential senator asks NSF for data on threat from foreign influences

Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) has been concerned about foreign powers poaching U.S.-funded research.


The National Science Foundation (NSF) has joined the list of federal agencies that Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) has asked for explainations of how they are preventing foreign scientists from ripping off U.S. taxpayers.

Today’s letter to NSF follows the format of previous letters Grassley has sent to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense (DOD). Each asks whether the agency has vetted every funded researcher and whether any of those background checks have triggered an investigation into possible misuse or theft of federal funds. He also wants to know what the agency is doing to prevent such illegal practices, the cost of such preventive steps and whether it needs additional resources, and whether it is coordinating its efforts with federal law enforcement officials. Grassley also suggests the results of any investigations should be made public.

Grassley, chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, praises NSF for recent actions that include a proposed outside study of “how foreign entities may influence taxpayer-funded research and a new rule preventing noncitizens from being program managers. “These are positive initial steps,” he writes to NSF Director France Córdova. “However, more must be done.” Although other committees have direct jurisdiction over NSF, NIH, and DOD, every senator has broad powers to investigate waste, fraud, and abuse of government funds.

Grassley gave NSF 2 weeks to respond to his questions, some of which the agency could have difficulty answering. For instance, he asks NSF to describe every instance in the past 5 years in which “foreign actors used systemic and long-term efforts to influence NSF researchers” or “contributed resources to NSF-funded researchers in ways that could impact the integrity of the research.”

Grassley’s 24 October 2018 letter to NIH has led to investigations by its parent body of several researchers for their alleged failure to disclose foreign sources of support. DOD officials have not yet replied to a similar letter he sent them on 1 April with a 15 April deadline.

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